WASHINGTON - Every year, the children ask Santa for dolls, cars, games and puppies. They also ask for guns. Nerf guns, pistols, air rifles, shotguns. Even assault weapons.
And that breaks this 82-year-old Santa's heart, especially this year.
Unlike the department store Santa in the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," who told Ralphie he would not be getting the official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot Range Model
air rifle because "you'll shoot your eye out," the much-beloved Merrifield Garden Center Santa has a more elaborate denial.
"You might get a gun from your father or your mother or grandfather, but you won't get one from me," he tells kids who request weapons, either real or make-believe, at the nursery in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County.
"Guns were put on this earth to take the life of a bird, an animal or a person. Guns were designed to make people cry, to make people die. Now, take a candy and a holy card."
At Merrifield, where Santa has been nestling children on his lap for more than 30 years, at least one child a night comes asking for a gun. And that's not abnormal, given the role of guns in the arsenal of kid toys.
But Santa remembers one child who asked for an entire arsenal: an assault rifle, a shotgun and two handguns. And he asks me not to print the awful details of one encounter that really rattled him.
But let's just say that some parents don't agree with his quiet speech about weapons.
Santa's steadfast denial of guns as gifts, coming from a man who first dyed bedsheets red and wore a cowbell around his neck to create his uniform decades ago, is especially poignant this year.
In the dark shadow of the Newtown, Conn., massacre that left 20 first-graders, six school staff members and the mother of the gunman dead last week, children seem just a little more precious.
It is difficult to get too annoyed by the whining, the sticky hands, the greedy 13-page Santa letters that seem so standard.
And I went to listen to the requests Santa hears on a Wednesday night just to be reminded of their innocence, for a little sugar plum against all the gloom.
Hearing about their requests for guns came as a surprise.
It probably shouldn't have, but we live in a different world this week.
Lots of first-graders come to see Santa. Many of them balanced on the same knee that their parents sat on 30 years ago. At Merrifield, Santa has a multigenerational following.